The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Tuesday, January 24, 2006
LUSHLIFE: WEST SOUNDS

On the rear cover of the CD of LushLife’s West Sounds is a quote from Brian Wilson: “I think we are at the lowest point we have been in the history of [music]…like in rap music, it all adds up to one big minus.” Now, such a statement has to be taken with several caveats; for a start, it seems unlikely that Wilson has listened to much rap music, or it could be that the experience of being recording “Wipe Out” with the Fat Boys in 1987 – complete with its 12-inch extended Mike Love “rap” – was understandably enough to put him off for life. Then again, the unpleasant experience of listening to the Kapitalist bling doggerel which has comprised much of rap over the last 12 months – and the parallel dead end into which the Dif Jux/AntiCon axis seems to have run – may suggest that as of now, Wilson isn’t too far wrong.

Recent times, of course, have also seen The College Dropout, one of the greatest of all rap records – as well as its severely disappointing and flat sequel, Late Registration – and West Sounds is a similar exercise to DJ Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album in that it juxtaposes elements from The College Dropout and Pet Sounds against, or with, each other. With all its overt braggadoccio, Kanye’s record displayed a full awareness of the nothingness into which a life so unquestioned could prematurely dwindle, and here the Pet Sounds samples comment on and amplify The College Dropout’s inbuilt critique mechanisms. Whereas The Grey Album prompted its listeners urgently to re-evaluate both Jay-Z and the Beatles of 1968, West Sounds is constructed more along the lines of a Socratean dialogue, an internal debate against two seemingly opposing poles in music and art. It’s as if Wilson is continually prodding West’s conscience, crooning sweetly into his third eye: “you know deep down this is all bullshit, don’t you? It doesn’t even begin to cover up the emptiness.”

Well, maybe. But on a musical level, West Sounds also opens up hitherto unexpected connections, antedecents and forebears for subsequent directions in music. Thus the stately strings of “Put Your Head On My Shoulder” are looped, and combined with the rhythm track for “All Falls Down” and Syleena Johnson’s lead vocal, demonstrate that Brian Wilson invented Massive Attack; the cushion of lyricism reacting with West’s description of an imminently ruinable life. Better still is “Get Em High,” where the vibes line from “Let’s Go Away For Awhile” is ingeniously manipulated and combined with West’s rhythm to remind me of two of my favourite records of the early nineties, A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnite Marauders, and the High Llamas’ Gideon Gaye (both in their own ways articulations of lush life – on a personal level they remind me of, respectively, Hanger Lane and Maida Vale), even as West raps of a life rather less lushly lived. On “Diamonds” (significantly, the only track from Late Registration to appear here), the organ from “That’s Not Me” is amplified to provide an underscore of doom against Shirley Bassey’s chimerical voice and West’s bitter Kapitalist-politico tirade linking the craving for trinkets with civil war and genocide elsewhere. There is also heavily ironic glee in the brilliant reworking of the Zappa/Pryor mongrel “The New Workout Plan” which, with the addition of the backing track from “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” becomes a crazily lurid celebration of consumerist nihilism, Hugh Hefner hip hop.

In some cases, tracks are left virtually intact but counterpointed by brief but profound Beach Boy interceptions; so the locker-room macho of “Breathe In Breathe Out” is quietly demolished by the appearance mid-song of the first verse of “I’m Waiting For The Day” – “I came along when he broke your heart/That’s when you needed someone/To help forget about him” etc. – the implication being that the “I” here is drugs. Likewise, the “I Will Survive” testifying of “Through The Wire” is left untouched until the fade – when an echoing “I may not always love you” (from “God Only Knows”) is introduced, devastatingly. And on “School Spirit,” a loop from “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” takes over from, and nullifies, West’s pseudo-boasting, with a heartbreaking harmonic sting in the words “But I can’t speak my mind.” But best of all, perhaps, is the astonishing reworking of “Jesus Walks” wherein Brian Wilson actually plays the part of God – as West prays for desperate deliverance, again against ominous organs, Wilson seems to mock him: “And after all I’ve done to you, how can it be you still believe in Me?” And the combination of Wilson’s organs and West’s klezmer sopranino violin conjures up, of all people, Robert Wyatt. Not all of the record works – one has to say no to the reworking of “Caroline No” into a Twista-dominant remix of “Slow Jamz”; nice try, but some things you don’t mess with, particularly the epitaph to an album which, for all its supposed childish outlook on the world and on life, is actually a concept record about the decline of sex. Nevertheless, as The Grey Album forced us to reconsider our aesthetic outlook, West Sounds works because it invites us to contemplate our emotional outlook – what do we want from music which we could get forty years ago but not today; and, if not, whose fault is that?

FIONA APPLE

“But me and everybody’s on the sad, same team
And you can hear our sad brains screaming:‘Give us something familiar; something similar
- To what we know already
That will keep us steady
Steady
Steady going nowhere’”

Not an excerpt from my forthcoming review of the Arctic Monkeys album, but a lyric from “Please Please Please,” a sneaky electro-reconstruction of “Hitch Hike” on Extraordinary Machine, the belated new album by Fiona Apple. Belated because it was shelved – either by the artist or the record company – in 2003 until such time as ten of its twelve songs were reworked and re-recorded with Mike Elizondo (Eminem’s producer) rather than Jon Brion (Kanye West’s recent co-producer). There have been stories, accusations and assertions on both sides, but as you might guess from the above parentheses, sonically and artistically the change of producer doesn’t make a great heap of difference to the outcome.

Just as well, for Extraordinary Machine is one of the great break-up albums – not mournfully so, as in Joni’s Blue, but bitchily and funnily so; it isn’t quite the white answer to Millie Jackson’s Caught Up, but it’s not far off it. It may speak undue volumes about my distorted state of mind that Apple’s sudden eruption in the middle of the solo meditation “Parting Gift,” wherein she seems to strike the piano with sabres or stackheeled boots while yelling “OH you SILLY, STUPID PASTIME of mine” actually connects more with my heart in January 2005 than the dilapidatedly dilated tones of ex-Olympic swimmer Beverley Craven dripping her way through her unwarranted 1991 top three smash “Promise Me” – “Promise me! You’ll wait for me! ‘Cause I’ll be saving all my love for you!” – EVEN THOUGH THAT’S EXACTLY HOW I FEEL AT THE MOMENT* because, after all, love comes in colours, and the main colour in Fiona Apple’s love palette at present is RED, as exemplified in the torched Fad Gadget-fading-to-Jim White when he sings about the old Corvair in his yard “Red Red Red.”

(*for an infinitely superior variation on that theme, see Richard Hawley's "Darlin' Wait For Me")

In practice the substitution of Elizondo for Brion makes no substantial difference in Apple’s musical approach – if anything, Elizondo’s work is stranger than the two Brion cameos which bookend the dream of this album’s core. The opening title track is a nice sub-Sondheim romp with the best use of a doorbell in pop since Gwen Stefani’s “Bubble Pop Electric,” but both that and the closer “Waltz (Better Than Fine)” come over a little reluctant, a little underbaked, a little Tori Amos rather than a lot of Jane Siberry (speaking of which latter, you mustn’t listen to Antony’s I Am A Bird Now until you’ve experienced Jane’s When I Was A Boy – a decade-old masterpiece of loss and redemption). Whereas track two, “Get Him Back” is Gilbert O’Sullivan marrying The Joy Of Cooking on the verge of being derailed by Cecil Taylor – a McCartney-ish uptempo rant in which Apple explores her lovelorn schizophrenia, but her determination is perpetually under threat of submerging by the dislocating keyboard bitonalities. Similarly “O’ Sailor” is like a drunk Tori Amos (whereas the Armand Van Helden remix of “Professional Widow” was like Tori Amos trying to get stoned on Blossom wine at 78 rpm), although the ungainly swagger does momentarily resolve into lush, stringy smoothness. “Tymps (The Sick In The Head Song)” continues the I love him/I hate the fact that I love him dichotomy with one of those Carla Bley chord progressions that I adore; unexpected harmonies and chord changes swallowing each previous one like a trapdoor, all soundtracked by a Nino Rota mandolin and Jerry Dammers organ. “Window” is a detuned hooligan variant on “Cornflake Girl” which ends in a free jazz rave-up. “Oh Well” stalks its own pseudo-resignation as once again Apple hammers out her soul with genuine rage midway through (“What WASTED! UNCONDITIONAL!! LOVE!!!”), and the climactic “Not About Love” is a truly disturbing schizophrenic seesaw, veering from bitter waltz balladry to hammering double-speed berserkdom (“TAKEALLTHETHINGSTHATISAIDTHATHESTOLEPUTEMINASACKSWINGEMOVERMYSHOULDERTURNONMYHEELSSTEPOUTOFHISSIGHT”) before suddenly stopping dead (“This…is…”) and then the jackhammer piano again (“NOT…ABOUT…LOVE”) – but the emotional core of the song is in the quietly sobbed “I miss that stupid ape.” The closing “Waltz” perhaps sees her reluctantly return to the devil she does know (“If you don’t have a song to sing – you’re OK”). But generally Extraordinary Machine is a gloriously unreasonable, contradictory, damn sexy and damnably funny record. Apple’s voice, if anyone, reminds me of KT Tunstall (really it should be the other way around) but (dis)placed in a different, if not quite alien, environment. One gets the feeling that if Apple had sung “Suddenly I See” the residue of her spiteful spittle would be felt as far away as, at the very least, Iceland.

TWO SONGS ENTITLED “ALL ABOUT YOU” WHICH ARE A BILLION TIMES BETTER THAN “ALL ABOUT YOU” BY McFLY

1. “All About You” by the Scars (Pre, 1981)

Another reason for my unwillingness to join in with the rounds of applause for Franz Ferdinand is the existence of this Edinburgh quartet a quarter of a century ago. They released only one album – Author! Author! – which received warm critical plaudits and sold healthily in Scotland, but they never followed it through, drifted into dubious semi-existence, and the album itself has probably never even been considered for CD reissue. Curious, as Author! Author! (in combination with Heart Of Darkness, the debut album by Glasgow’s Positive Noise, released in the same month) lays out with commendable depth the template which the Ferdinands would deploy a generation down the line (but not a generation, obviously, dissuaded from picking up interesting-looking albums in second-hand record shops in Glasgow) – the artless artiness, the unilateral angularity of guitars, the carefully untidy rushes of rhythm as though to avoid being thought of as “rock,” the knowing winks and the Caesarean fringes. But the Scars’ music also had other, important qualities which seem to have become lost to 21st century follow-up; such as that perhaps irretrievable boyish rush to excitement which you also hear in Postcard period Orange Juice, a Boy Scouts call to arms (those reveille guitars and Edinburgh Military Tattoo drums) as if rushing out for the new issue of Whizzer and Chips on a Saturday morning, as opposed to the Stockholm-centred business plan which their successors have been possibly too eager to adopt (rather than adapt) – such that the Scars stand as a missing link between the Skids and the Fire Engines. In addition the Franzes have yet to be sufficiently guileless to write and record a song called “The Lady In The Car With Glasses On And A Gun!” or outdo David Essex (the Scars cover “Silver Dream Machine”) or delve far more dangerously into emotional depths – the aura of impending personal apocalypse which shadows songs such as “Leave Me In Autumn,” the still disturbing “Je T’Aime C’est La Mort” (and all the more disturbing for immediately following a song entitled “She’s Alive”) and the quite brilliant setting of Peter Porter’s World War III poem (and staple of Scottish O Grade English Literature syllabuses of the period) “Your Attention Please.”

It all unites with determined chaos in the album’s single, “All About You,” which vacillates as freely as Fiona Apple between the twin poles of I love/hate you. “When I’ve nothing to do/And I think about you/All about you/It makes me blue,” singer Robert King chants cheerfully over major key guitar clarions (but the punctum lies in the slashing Killing Joke chord in the fourth bar of each verse and chorus). “And the things you say/With your serious way/Make me cry all day,” the song continues, like the flipside of the beneficence which Belle and Sebastian have always kept in closeted check. It’s a rousing damn you/can’t live without you anthem played with as much positivity as if it were the new Scottish Parliament national anthem/end-of-term drinking song, Steve McLaughlin’s drums booming from speaker to speaker, the song gradually echoing into space-bound residue – like Franz Ferdinand produced by Trevor Horn after they have finally grasped the true meaning of darts of passion.

2. “All About You” by Thomas Leer (Cherry Red, 1982)

Had the motives and strategies of New Pop really been seen through to their logical end, the Christmas number one single and album of 1982 would have been, respectively, “All About You” by Thomas Leer and Force The Hand Of Chance by Psychic TV. As it sadly happened, the actual Christmas number one single and album of 1982 were, disrespectfully, “Save Your Love” by Renee and Renato and The John Lennon Collection. But then it’s highly likely that “All About You” appeared on the biggest-selling album of the first couple of months of 1983, the Cherry Red 99p sampler Pillows And Prayers, which, though debarred from the album chart for the Kapitalist crime of being inexpensive, shifted some half a million copies, thereby getting the likes of Felt, the Monochrome Set, the Nightingales, Joe Crow, Kevin Coyne and Quentin Crisp into a substantial number of collections, as well as the Everything But The Girl tracks which, logically, probably were the album’s main selling point.

Even so, Leer remains the Howard Jones/Nik Kershaw/George Michael/Chris Martin we should have had – a brilliant songwriter, producer and singer who, not content with helping to lay the groundwork for Techno with 1981’s Four Movements EP, or helping to lay ZTT to rest with 1987’s “Snobbery And Decay,” produced, and continues to produce, sublime, intelligent and adventurous pop songs. But “All About You” is his masterpiece – such a simple song, with its Brookside drum machine, its carefully stealthy melody regularly breaking into heartbreaking minor key bridges and Leer’s fantastically controlled, but passionate, dual lead vocal for a song which cries out against stupid artifice (“But I’m not supposed to see you! And I’m not supposed to care! And I’m not supposed to tell you…that love is all about…it’s all about YOU”) but whose compassion is centred around its deeply-felt need for personal redemption – the prospect of a second chance, a new life. With words such as “It took so long to find you” and “You’re like a saving grace I had to find,” is it any wonder that I’m now listening to the song again with the same breathless fervour with which I first heard it, the last time I stood at these crossroads, 23 years ago?


posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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Wednesday, January 18, 2006
FRIENDS AND CROCODILES

I’ve never quite understood the immense acclaim afforded to Stephen Poliakoff, other than the fact that he’s one of the few playwrights still allowed licence by mainstream (or, indeed, any) television to Do and Say Big Things – a sort of Play For Today equivalent of Kate Bush, to belittle the latter. Perhaps the “Big” is the key problem here; in histopathological terms, Poliakoff concerns himself with big blocks and large cut-ups, whereas the works of Dennis Potter, say, were all to do with small cut-ups. By focusing almost exclusively on his own life as the cynosure of The World, Potter nevertheless managed to say a lot more about the world in which we still live than Poliakoff has achieved with his brusque epics. Thus Pennies From Heaven speaks acridly yet still compassionately about the ultimate inability of music to transcend a flawed humanity, even though it is set in the ‘30s – although Potter was fully aware of music’s unanswerable power to illuminate the course of humanity, to make the course worth travelling, or ploughing.

Friends And Crocodiles was yet another Meaningful Statement about the legacy of cloistered crassness permitted by Thatcherism, and as with most of the others it failed because of characters who were always more signifiers than believable people. Thus we are expected to credit Damian Lewis’ Paul as an exemplar of that most otiose of oxymorons, the beneficent capitalist, building his own holographic Bloomsbury on the back of astute property investment. About the means which he deployed to secure his fortune we were told nothing, and there was a far-from-innocent smugness which he displayed throughout which suggested that Rachman or van Hoogstraten-type tactics were not beyond his capacity; indeed, may well have defined his capacities. Balance this out with the closing section, where he buys an old school and burns all the school furniture – a sequence frightening in its superficial bonhomie – thereby proving himself to be a far more rapacious and ruthless capitalist than Jodhi May’s innocently unapologetic Thatcherite. He only becomes a hippy because he can afford to be – so this may have been an essay about the apparent indestructibility of the crocodile of capitalism so long as its scales are feathered by what Kubrick described (to Peter Sellers, who promptly appropriated the phrase for himself) as “fuck you” money. After five months walling himself away from a venture company, he decides that the future lies in bookshops with a coffee shop attached. The monetarists’ outrage (“Five months for THAT?”) may be less to do with his cheerful demolition of all they have believed (i.e. invested) in, than dim foreknowledge of the fact that, a generation hence, the Waterstones of this world would become as corporate corner-cutting as any damnable venture company would allow.

In this context, May’s character Lizzie is less of a strident Thatcherite empire builder than someone who just wants to get on with the important business of keeping her life in “order” – a compulsive-obsessive/fear-the-bailiffs/ultimately-fear-oneself concept of order which only works because it permits the admission of only those things, and only those people, which fit into the concretely abstract boundaries of her dream of the ideal (never to be confused with idealism). Therefore, even though life conspires to hurl her into the Paul wall at regular intervals, she has to avoid him, run away from him, in order to breathe, in order to avoid the oversight of her order not only being meaningless (even in subjective terms; she acts as the anti-Marxist token axiom because she conspires, or is persuaded to conspire, in the takeover and destruction of places which actually make useful things, in favour of making, not merely surplus things, but nothing at all – the beaming blankness of the pre-21st century internet. Thus the lamps are thrown off the balcony and destroyed so that millions of virtual people might consume in the dark.

However, as I said, the story, and therefore the analogy it proffers to offer, fails because there is never the remotest possibility of these two “extremes” (or mirror images) actually connecting; indeed, Lewis and May revel in their unbridgeable distance. This allows for dreary 50-feet-high Signifiers to elbow their way into the text (“Oh I See Maggie May Resign The Home Secretary May Make A Speech,” “I See Labour Have Won The Election,” “I Wonder Who Will Get To Number One – Blur Or Oasis?,” “OK I Made That Last One Up But Even So,” etc.) and thereby elbowing out any humanity, any possibility of redemption or even coherent explanation of an era. The cynical male versus the superficial female – hasn’t this been done before, and better?

GONE WITH THE WIND

The best way to sum up Gone With The Wind would be as an essay about two cinema spectators watching each other on either side of their respective screens. Even if it is set 150 years in the past, it accidentally manages to say an awful lot (and something of a good lot too) about the virtual Atlanta burning that was Thatcherism and Reaganism (as long as the contemporary viewer shrugs aside all that dialogue about “darkies”). As a Good angel to the Black angel of Henry Fonda’s Frank in Once Upon A Time In The West (or, two generations later, John Huston’s Noah Cross in Chinatown, and a further generation yet thereafter, Christopher Lloyd’s Judge in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), Gable’s Rhett sees the future on his doorstep and cautiously welcomes it, such that he might profit, knowing that every wink of his left eye is inversely proportional to the ritual sacrifice of fire necessary for any future, however prematurely damaged, to exist. Leigh’s Scarlett is an unwilling co-conspirator, but that unwillingness is only partial; once she has Tara back on its feet and called in some favours, she becomes as enthusiastic a free marketeer as any Shermanite turncoat.

But it is entirely illusory. Towards the end, as Gable departs, he muses that their deceased daughter reminded him of “you…unspoiled…before the war and poverty did things to you.” But at the film’s beginning we do see Scarlett before the war, and she is as stuck-up and starstruck as ever she might have been. Like any over-idealistic cinemagoer, she has preprogrammed ideas about what a perfect life might constitute – the squeaky clean hero (Ashley), the spotlessly white existence, glamour and more glamour with no irritating pain or contrary people – and is repeatedly frustrated, or defeated, by the wearisome inability of real life to live up to what someone has written for the purposes of transient entertainment (as opposed to transcendence).

Meanwhile, Rhett is the cynical moviegoer at the other end – perhaps even the film critic – knowing the workings of the racket (as only a born racketeer could) and commenting like a Roger Ebert Greek chorus at the ludicrous melodramatics of the plot. Frequently he acts (acts!) towards Scarlett like an impatient casting director, scoffing at her fake mourning, her careful histrionics. Finally even he wearies of the flimsy delights offered by the cinema and wanders off – to read a book? To paint a picture? To be Orson Welles? – leaving Scarlett alone, the last spectator in the cinema, dutifully sitting until the last credits have rolled (over her, like a steamroller).

Very notably, Gone With The Wind is almost entirely free of sex. Leslie Howard’s Ashley is such a fragile fop you wonder what Scarlett ever saw in him (presumably only that deduced from seeing his face illustrated on a penny-dreadful read by her at the age of twelve), and the pampered, puffy peacock that is, for the most part, Scarlett herself is defiantly unsexy – except for one moment, after the war, when she has returned to the ruined farm, gets out into the fields, kills stray Sherman deserters/bandits. Then she lets her hair down and there is a snarl of blood which sets the stage perfectly for Blanche DuBois. Or worse.

TAXI DRIVER

Travis Bickle is an overly naïve moviegoer, but much more, is less of a clueless Christ reincarnate than a stranded alien who has fallen from somewhere out of the sky, very far from home. The obvious comparison here is with E.T., but the apter comparison would be with Chance the gardener in Being There. Both men appear fully (mal)formed, with no known previous history – Travis has been in Vietnam, Chance in the big house all of his life, but both remain abstracts; indispensable McGuffin’s, perhaps, for understanding their subsequent (in)actions (if “understanding” is indeed necessary). Both men, when presented with the outside world, act precisely as though seeing it for the first time – and to both men, it is as incomprehensible as theocracy, or ritual statues, or centipedes. Both nurture simple, black-and-white philosophies about how to live, their damaging simplicity compromised by the lives they have hitherto not lived.

The difference between Scarlett, and Travis/Chance, is that Scarlett’s character at least allows for the possibility of sex, as rapidly as she persuades herself to deny it (throwing herself down the staircase to lose that second baby), whereas with Travis and Chance sex is as abstract as origami or tangerines. Neither really knows, or perhaps cares, what sex is; thus Chance’s complete indifference to Shirley MacLaine furiously masturbating beside him (he sticks to watching the television), thus Travis’ bewilderment at Cybill Shepherd’s Betsy and her outrage when he escorts her to a porn film (“You’re wrong,” he stammers at her rapidly retreating frame, “a lot of couples come here and enjoy this kind of film!” – and there ensues a tender but clever cut to the audience, which is indeed mainly composed of loving couples, getting off on what they’re watching).

Thus also is Travis’ crusade to “save” Jodie Foster’s Iris consigning both of them to doom, because of his complete misunderstanding of the concept of “family.” This is very subtly brought home to us by Scorsese by the matching “dance” sequences. In one, Iris and Harvey Keitel’s pimp/father figure Sport waltz very tenderly to a record – and far from being pederastic, it is perhaps the most tender and human scene in the film. Keitel and Foster’s closeness is exactly that of the father and daughter – a father whose capabilities exceed the actual father from whom she has run away. Meanwhile, Travis can only watch other people dancing, on a television screen – other anonymous, facelessly smiling people embracing to Jackson Browne’s “Late For The Sky.” The only choreography which he can master is that of the gunslinger. Thus Iris’ howls, following Travis’ carnage, are not howls of relief and liberation; it is as if her family has been massacred in front of her.

Travis takes to guns far more readily than to sex – bullets are abstractly clean whereas sex is concretely dirty. But even these he sees as essentially harmless; you can never imagine him as a Presidential assassin, any more than you can imagine Charles Palantine as a Presidential candidate (in their only meeting, as a passenger in Travis’ cab, Palantine reveals himself to be as uncomprehending of political ideology as Travis – and probably a lot more so. What his party or politics or manifesto are, we never find out. “For The People.” Whoever got elected on a mandate of “Against The People”?). He can’t quite appreciate the possibility that people might get hurt or killed by guns, except when he determinedly sets out to do so.

And when that happens, it is implied that he consigns Iris back to her former living death, out in the sticks. Observe the closing letter reading by her father, and the bloated, simple-minded figures of parents we see in the newspaper cuttings – the voice is hesitant, not quite literate, nothing like what Iris wanted, which was why she tried to escape them. So she will grow up constricted, committed to nothing, and fifteen or so years later re-emerge – not as Clarice in The Silence Of The Lambs (though that’s a tempting thesis; is Hannibal a truer Christ figure than Bickle?) but as Cybill Shepherd’s blithe campaign worker Betsy (the character set-up scene in campaign HQ with an earnest Albert Brooks quietly demonstrates that she knows equally as little about “politics” as Travis), idling away her mind to Kris Kristofferson records but not really listening to them (when she quotes the “He’s a prophet and a pusher” lyric at Travis, we feel Scorsese speaking rather than Shepherd).

I watched Taxi Driver again over Christmas with my mother, who was watching it for the first time. For the first hour or so she thought it was a hilarious comedy about a dopey guy who had problems getting girls, until the submucosal violence finally seeped through, and the shock was evident – “It’s worse than The Godfather!” (and she’s a big Sergio Leone fan, so figure that one out). But then again, Travis’ isolation is voluntary – De Niro’s voiceover makes it clear that he makes a pretty good living out of taxi driving – not because he dislikes humanity, but because he simply doesn’t get it. Presidential candidates or pervy suits – it’s all banter and he can’t register a word of it (even if the latter, played by Scorsese himself, might be his own suppressed conscience whispering to him in serrated giggles). But note the sequence where he goes to meet Betsy, striding in slow motion down the street in a red jacket; with the angle of sunlight casting a glow on his brown hair, he looks like the Devil, on his way to end the world.

And at the end, after the blood, after even Travis knows in himself that Betsy is now interested (that sly semi-grin as he leaves her standing at her gate and speeds off), after he has become a “celebrity” – he still can’t bear to look at himself in the mirror, nor at us. With the exception, of course, of “you lookin’ at me?” after he has willingly sauntered onto his self-constructed soundstage, still a non-celebrity but not for much longer. Which brings us to the story, if story there be, of Chantelle Houghton – but that story has yet to end before I can tell it.


posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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Sunday, January 08, 2006

PLEASE DON’T TALK ABOUT ME WHEN I’M GONE

"The problem with records…I’m just speaking personally, I don’t mean as a general problem. Nobody has problems with records, people love records! The whole of people’s listening lives is built around records if I understand it right. But it’s all endgame – it introduces the endgame to something that is for me primarily not about endgames. It collects it and says that’s the end of that. And there is no end as far as I’m concerned."
(Derek Bailey, Invisible Jukebox, The Wire, December 1998)

The problem, of course, is that all games must one day end, in concurrence with the ending of the gameplayer’s life; and when the artist is gone, records are all that are left to remember him by, to remind us that once the artist existed. That is, records and memories - if you were ever fortunate enough to see Derek Bailey in live performance, as I was dozens of times, you would recognise that, in his case at least, records in themselves were never quite enough.

No musician insisted so emphatically and unbreakably on the indivisibility of music and life as Derek Bailey. Many consider him the most radical figure in music of the last half-century, but in many ways he was also the most conservative in that he saw the function of music as it was perhaps originally intended – that is, a natural development from conversation and interaction between humans, a shorthand for complex emotional expression for which words and gestures alone weren’t sufficient, a way of relating to another human being, the formation of human networks of symbiotic equality; in other words, music as the ideal framework for the perfect socialist society.

With the form of improvised music – music free of any preconceived melodic, harmonic or rhythmic content, free of consideration of any other genres of music, free from stifling forethought of any kind save the knowledge of the improviser’s own emotional and technical resources – which Bailey pretty much invented (in conjunction with the drummer Tony Oxley and bassist/future composer Gavin Bryars, in the mid-‘60s Sheffield group the Joseph Holbrooke Trio), the listener is invited to contemplate what exactly is meant by music, what people think of when they decide to talk to each other or play music with each other. If music arises from societal interaction, then when does conversation end and music begin – and does there have to be a boundary? In the world of improvised music, the chatter and groundwork are more important than whatever end product emerges. Deflected by definition from being archived, improvised music compels the notion of nowness as no other form of music can do. When musicians improvise, it is what is happening in real time that matters, the electricity between musicians, the tiny gesture by one player which may eventually ignite a collective explosion, even the room temperature, the clinking of glasses in the pub next door, persistently coughing spectators – all are crucial contributory factors.

And, as deliberate freedom from melodic content and bar lines does not presuppose absolute freedom, for the wilful bypassing of structure is a structure in itself, so improvised music must allow for periods of boredom, of trivia, of practical jokes, of raspberries and jibes. Some improvisations do no more than pass the time of day, for no more is demanded of it or by it. It is the experience of life and interaction which the improviser gradually gains through years, decades of commitment to improvised music which makes the best improvisers’ music so cumulatively powerful, and so inseparable from their actual lives.

There is no need to document Derek Bailey’s history exhaustively here, as Ben Watson has already done so – and in the nick of time, as it turned out – in his exhaustive, exhausting, scurrilous, passionate, unstinting, contradictory, partisan, hilarious biography/manifesto Derek Bailey And The Story Of Free Improvisation. Suffice to say here that he was a guitarist, but such a description already traduces him, for he was unassumingly much more than that – guru, philosopher, facilitator, comedian. If his death has had a similar effect on me as that of John Peel, then it is to do with the fact that both were people of my parents’ generation, born in the thirties, both of whom had lived a lifetime before coming to their individual conclusions. So if Bailey had little time for psychedelia or punk, this was because he had already pre-empted and out-radicalised them with musical tools and approaches learned, not from rock, but from the twenty or so years he spent as an itinerant danceband and session guitarist, more or less in the pre-rock mainstream of popular music (among the people whom he encountered and/or accompanied during this period were Count Basie, Gracie Fields, the Supremes and Morecambe and Wise), learning and playing standards, having to sight-read or improvise arrangements on the turn of a dime. From the orchestra pit in the ABC Theatre in Blackpool he would watch Morecambe and Wise at work, observe how they would progressively pare down their routines every night to their essence, depending on how many laughs they got (and it is rumoured that Zappa and Beefheart fan Eric Morecambe sometimes attended improv gigs incognito, i.e. sans spectacles). But he was also a theoretical devotee of Webern and Cage – just how much he learned from Webern’s tactics can be gleaned by listening to 1967’s Pieces For Guitar, not released until 2003, on Tzadik, a record which conclusively proves that Bailey was coming from somewhere. On the ‘60s BBC comedy series I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again, which involved future members of Monty Python and the Goodies, Bailey was one of Dave Lee’s "boys" in the backing band, and when Bill Oddie called for some "freak outs," Bailey’s plangent, acidic guitar tones are instantly recognisable (and this was a mainstream comedy show, let it be remembered, which was unafraid to use gags about a "felonious monk" or an "ornate coalman" and got immediate, knowing laughs from the audience).

From 1969 onwards he stopped all session work and devoted himself almost exclusively to improvised music for the next 36 years. By then he was already a seasoned veteran of John Stevens’ Spontaneous Music Ensemble and had started to establish lifelong relationships with numerous musicians on the Continent, principally in Holland and Germany, as well as continuing his multiple conversations with the key British improvisers of the age. In 1971 Bailey, in conjunction with Oxley and Evan Parker, formed Incus Records to try to document the music as thoroughly as possible – even though Bailey saw documentation of improvised music as absolute anathema, he also saw records as a necessary evil from which he could make a living; and most of the records which he released remain compulsive listening.

By the mid-‘70s, however, Bailey was principally improvising as a soloist, which meant that his performances and records now came across more as diary entries than conversations as such. In order to regenerate the latter he set up Company in 1977, which many obituarists have already declared may be his single most important achievement, although Bailey would have been the first to blanche at the word "achievement." The purpose of Company was essentially to convene various musicians from different areas of improvisation (or even musicians who didn’t improvise), put them together, work out different groupings in which they could play, and then perform and see what happened. But this wasn’t the schoolboy pick ‘n’ mix ethos which Bill Laswell would later adopt; Bailey brought specific musicians together for specific reasons. Sometimes the music worked and a lot of other times it tiptoed into insignificance. The framework, however, was the important thing. As the years went by, the compass expanded to include performance artists, tap-dancers, laptop conceptualists, rockists, classicists, and sometimes Bailey did not feel the need to perform himself. Like Diaghilev, he assembled different and diverse ingredients to create a new recipe; unlike Diaghilev, the world did not immediately explode at what he had made – with improvised music, the long-term effects were submucosal; gradually and invisibly seeping its way into the mainstream, and systematically changing it, in tiny crenellated notches.

One Company regular, John Zorn, then attended to the task of turning Bailey into the most extraordinary and unlikely post-rock star of ‘90s music. During that decade Bailey recorded a series of albums in collaboration with what was, even for him, a bizarre array of other musicians; with Ornette’s Prime Time rhythm section of Jamalaadeem Tacuma and Calvin Weston (Mirakle: Tzadik, 1999), with Japanese post-punk duo the Ruins (Saisoro by "Derek and the Ruins": Tzadik, 1994), with Laswell and Tony Williams (The Last Wave by "Arcana": DIW, 1995), and, most notoriously if not most successfully, with Birmingham’s DJ Ninj (guitar, drums ‘n’ bass: Avant, 1995). In more cautious hands such exercises would have been nothing more than a chic avant-equivalent to Tom Jones’ Reload, but Bailey makes them work, even if only by doing his own thing despite what the others are doing around him.

More important, though, were his long-term relationships with individual musicians. The 1995 2CD set Soho Suites is the best document of his work with Oxley; a 1977 gig in Soho, London, with Oxley on electronic drumkit and Bailey on tender, thoughtful guitar, coupled with a 1995 gig in Soho, NYC, with Oxley on standard traps and Bailey on shockingly aggressive, rancorous turned-up-to-11 electric guitar. And of course there is also Bailey’s unforgettable and unworldly contributions to Oxley’s landmark 1969 quintet album The Baptised Traveller (the exact recorded moment where British jazz stops being jazz and becomes improv). On Charlie Mariano’s "Stone Garden," Bailey punctuates what would otherwise be a standard post-Coltrane free-modal piece with pedal-delay notes, overtones and scrabbles which are deeply distressing and not only seem to come from another planet (his solo at the end is scarcely a "solo" as any "jazz fan" would know it) but also expresses more genuine mourning and dislocation than anything the rest of the group appears to be doing (though note that rhythmically Bailey and Oxley are working in tandem all the way through the piece’s 17 minutes).

His other great drum association was with the Dutchman Han Bennink. Apt to throw drumsticks into the audience, stomp around the stage and play paradiddles on the floor, or to pick up a stray clarinet, banjo, violin or trombone and perform a soulful, out-of-tune rendition of "Violets For Your Furs" or "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," the relationship is not easily translatable to record, but the lijm album released on ICP in 1969 (which alas has yet to resurface on CD) accomplishes it brilliantly with an unyieldingly ferocious recital which still sounds fuck-you radical today. Hearing Bailey’s howling guitar thrashing against the white-haired waves of Bennink’s phenomenal drumming and hammering, it’s no surprise that he scarcely raised an eyebrow at the onset of the Sex Pistols.

Saxophonists were more problematic. Bailey came to distrust them, principally because he felt they took every opportunity to "put their balls on show" rather than contribute meaningfully to a collaborative discussion, though he did make exceptions; Steve Lacy, on whose brilliant Saxophone Special + (1973-4) album (Emanem, 1998) Bailey demonstrates just how gleefully disruptive he could be in a "jazz" context (his explosive solo on the tango "Flakes," for instance, indicates that maybe Carla Bley should have engaged his services from time to time) but also (in tandem with synth operative Michel Waisvisz) go on to create something new; beneath the saxophone quartet of Lacy, Steve Potts, Evan Parker and Trevor Watts, they create an "electronic rhythm section" which not only foresees the Aphex/Mu-Zik nexus of ‘90s electronica but also what Bailey would get up to in Limescale three decades hence. And there was also Lee Konitz, a participant in the first recorded "free jazz" improvisations, Lennie Tristano’s "Intuition" and "Digression," who had played superb bebop with the Joseph Holbrooke Trio when visiting Manchester in 1966, and whom Bailey asked back to participate (memorably and crucially) in Company Week 1987; and Konitz devotee Anthony Braxton, who raved about Bailey in the early ‘70s when no other American musician would and with whom Bailey recorded a series of memorable duet albums.

But there was also Evan Parker; maybe the greatest musical partner that Bailey ever had, but their relationship was also by far the most difficult, and by the time of their acrimonious parting of the ways in 1987 they had drifted so far apart, ideologically and otherwise (from Bailey’s perspective, at least), that this rift was never to be healed. Listening to their inimitably spiky interplay, whether in the context of the SME (the fast-track delicacy of 1968’s Karyobin still strikes me as Jimmy Giuffre and Jim Hall on Pro-Plus), or in the alien electrified jungles of the Music Improvisation Company, or simply alone together (as on the recently reissued 1975 London Concert), makes this all the more regrettable, and not simply because Bailey and Parker were, to me as a boy, idols in the way that David Bowie or George Best were idols to others – people I one day hoped to be.

However, Bailey kept on not resting virtually until the end. In hindsight it’s easy to view 2002’s Ballads album – where he revisited the danceband standards of his youth – as a last will and testament ("Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone" indeed), but this discounts the astonishing Limescale album of 2003 which – for a music which had supposedly drifted so far away from jazz – miraculously found ways to unite the old (Tony Bevan’s bass sax and Alex Ward’s clarinet virtually take us back to the days of "Dippermouth Blues") and the New (the Drenching-Pleasure dictaphone-brick interface. Are they horns? Are they the rhythm section? Why, they’re there!) in a funny, uproarious and genuinely radical way.

By then Bailey had retreated from Hackney Downs to Barcelona for an all-too-brief Indian summer. Despite his comments in interviews about the thumb going, which he attributed to ageing but which we now know were symptomatic from the Lou Gehrig’s disease which eventually claimed his life on Christmas Day, he remained at work, and there are two final records to consider – the solo Carpal Tunnel, whose delicate, reluctant pluckings sound like the last of Pauline Oliveros’ oil drops echoing into the unreachable inner crust of the Earth; but also The Gospel Record, an album of gospel tunes with American electronicist Dennis Palmer and vocalist Amy Denio. He was summing life up as comprehensively as he wished to continue it. He felt it was good to talk, and that music couldn’t be arrived at without talking (in later life he took to issuing homemade CD-Rs, available on request). And he also demonstrated, passionately (if needled) but unobtrusively, that there really were no boundaries to what we think and do every day and how we choose to express it in art – the only boundaries being placed by those who wish to control thought, to corral it into convenient bitesized, elementary Heinz baby food, to not annoy "demographics," to imply that the listener can never be anything more than a consumer, that a listener cannot put something of themselves – their own lives and emotions – into a piece of music and therefore make it matter, make it mean something. The key question which arises from the Invisible Jukebox interview quoted at the beginning of this piece is not whether Bailey knew any of the records which he was played, but whether they were worth knowing. Nevertheless, is it going too far to suggest that without what Derek Bailey started in 1966, there would be no Xenomania today, would have been no Art of Noise in 1983, no Morley, no me? Possibly I would need a much longer and much less scrutable article to get to the middle of that, never mind its bottom.

But perhaps the best way to sign off with Derek Bailey – one of the key musicians of the last hundred years, and the nearest thing I’ve ever had to a musical hero – is to recall my own favourite of the nearly 200 records which he made, Aida, recorded in 1980 and released in 1982, and containing three pieces in tribute to the Japanese music promoter Aida Aquinax, who died in 1978 aged just 32. The side-long title track is a desolate landscape of mourning ("An Echo in Another’s Mind" as another track title puts it) with strange overlays of folk-song (in places it isn’t that far away from Bert Jansch or Martin Carthy). But, in the audience, after about nineteen minutes, someone’s watch alarm starts going off. Bailey picks a few more quizzical chords before calling a halt. "Well, that’ll do for the first side," he quips to laughs and applause. The question is, now that he himself has gone, who has the stature and adventure to do side two.

"Finished, it’s finished, it’s nearly finished, it must be nearly finished. (Pause.) Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap. (Pause.) I can’t be punished any more. (Pause.) I’ll go now to my kitchen, ten feet by ten feet by ten feet, and wait for him to whistle me. (Pause.)"
(Clov, from Samuel Beckett’s Endgame)

Some other records
I don’t want to go into too much of a discography here, since there is a comprehensive one in Ben’s book, and nearly every one of these records is worth having. But Epiphany/Epiphanies (Incus, 1985), the record of the 1982 Company Week, is vital, if only for the astonishing closing trio improvisation between Bailey, Akio Suzuki and Moto Yoshizawa which I heard in person and which opened up new horizons for improvised music which have yet to be breached or followed through. The monumental 3CD set by the early ‘70s trio of Bailey, Paul Rutherford and Barry Guy, Iskra 1903 (Emanem) is urgent listening for those who want to know where Jamie Reid and the Manics might have got a few of their conceptual ideas. The solo Domestic and Public Pieces (Emanem) from 1975 contains a large proportion of talking from Bailey, on topics ranging from middle-aged male impotence to "jamming" with Oscar Peterson by switching the TV on, as well as "Unity Theatre," the astonishing Brit-improv answer to Howlin’ Wolf’s "Natchez Burnin’." In Whose Tradition? (Emanem, 1988) demonstrates that Ballads was not a wholly new idea, as he contemplates Thatcherism while strumming "You Go To My Head." Finally, two trio sets: Yankees (CellulOid, 1983) with John Zorn and George Lewis is bright, sparkly and spiky; and And (Rectangle, 2000) is a stormy, demonic session which best documents Bailey’s relationship with the Oxford school of improv, in tandem with Steve Noble and Pat Thomas.

Did Derek Bailey know my father?
Bailey did shore up in Glasgow for a brief, impoverished period in the early ‘50s, and did a few gigs while there, but my father didn’t recall him; they eventually did meet at the first Company gig at the ICA in 1977 (with Parker, Steve Beresford and Lol Coxhill) and promptly talked the hind legs off each other, reminiscing about Wardell Gray, Charlie Christian and other great musicians who were alive before rock and roll.


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